Drivers credit Bubba Wallace’s leadership as NASCAR bans Confederate flag

When Bubba Wallace got a chance to drive part time for Richard Petty Motorsports three years ago, there was talk about how he could change the look of the sport.

And the thought was that he did, in 2018, when he became the first full-time black driver in the NASCAR Cup Series since 1971.

Even then, no one could have predicted just how he would change things.

Rarely does one driver have the ability to spearhead change, but drivers credit the leadership of Bubba Wallace to push NASCAR to make a change that its leadership probably already wanted to make in going from discouraging the flying of the Confederate flag to the banning of it.

To be clear, NASCAR has for years denounced the Confederate flag and offered to trade a U.S. flag or a driver flag for any Confederate flags in the infield. And NASCAR was left with plenty of U.S. flags left to trade.

But in a span of four days this past week, it all changed. Prior to the Atlanta Motor Speedway race Sunday, NASCAR President Steve Phelps vowed that NASCAR would help push for change when it comes to racial inequality. Then a day later, Wallace went on CNN and said the flag had to be banned.

In less than 48 hours after Wallace spoke, NASCAR put its own words into action. The flag would no longer be allowed on the property during NASCAR race weekends.

“The presence of the confederate flag at NASCAR events runs contrary to our commitment to providing a welcoming and inclusive environment for all fans, our competitors and our industry,” NASCAR said in a statement.

“Bringing people together around a love for racing and the community that it creates is what makes our fans and sport special. The display of the confederate flag will be prohibited from all NASCAR events and properties.”

How NASCAR will enforce this ban remains to be seen. Will NASCAR forcibly take flags down and confiscate them? Will it require people to leave the property if they don’t take down the flag? What about people wearing shirts with the flag?

Members of the NASCAR fan base, and some within the industry, voiced their displeasure on social media. But once NASCAR said it would act, it had no choice but to make the decision. The sport known for its Southern roots is also known for images of the Confederate flag at its events. As long as the Confederate flag was allowed to fly at tracks, anything NASCAR would say about diversity would ring hollow to many.

Wallace has been asked about the Confederate flag for several years and never took as strong a stand as he did Monday. And his stance wasn’t that uncommon among many black people in the industry, who would try not to alienate any section of the fan base and while not supporting the flag, they wouldn’t call for the ban.

But the murder of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis and the societal upheaval following has resulted in passionate appeals for action on racial inequality. Wallace seems, like many in the United States, empowered to call out what he views right from wrong.

“Bravo,” Wallace said prior to the Cup race Wednesday night at Martinsville Speedway. “Props to NASCAR and everybody involved. … Phelps and I have been in contact a lot, just trying to figure out what steps are next and that was a huge, pivotal moment for the sport.

“A lot of backlash, but it creates doors and allows the community to come together as one, and that is what the real mission is here.”

Wallace drove a Richard Petty Motorsports car with a Black Lives Matter paint scheme in the race at Martinsville, another sign that his team supported him. NASCAR also removed language from its driver-crew chief prerace handout starting prior to Atlanta that required them to stand for the national anthem – an indication that NASCAR would not discipline anyone for protesting.

But the decision on the Confederate flag is big because it could impact the NASCAR bottom line. There could be people who don’t attend races out of principle in the belief that NASCAR is limiting their ability to celebrate their heritage.

“I don’t really care for that, for that flag,” said Cup driver Brad Keselowski. “I come from Michigan. I understand it might mean different things to different people. Where I come from, it doesn’t mean anything good.

“But then I think I have some empathy towards those that it does mean something positive to. I can’t put myself in their shoes. I’ve never been there. In general I’m a rights guy and I like when people have rights to do what they want to do. It’s ultimately not my decision. I support the fact that it’s NASCAR’s decision to make.”

Keselowski said he didn’t know when NASCAR would make a decision on the flag, so while he wasn’t caught off-guard Wednesday, he also wasn’t totally expecting it. NASCAR did not consult Keselowski and he wasn’t aware of any conversations between NASCAR and drivers on the decision.

NASCAR might have made the decision anyway, as the sport has been working to embrace diversity and inclusion, but Wallace certainly pushed the issue Monday while on CNN, for which his fellow drivers credited Wallace. And he has embraced the leadership role.

“I’m really proud of what he’s doing, the effort he’s putting in, in wanting to kind of lead the charge,” said Wallace’s good friend, Ryan Blaney. “I stand behind him. A lot of guys stand behind him in NASCAR, not only the drivers, but a lot of teams as well as crew members.

“The car he ran tonight was great. I loved that they were able to do that, came up with that idea.”

NASCAR’s decision was celebrated by the NAACP and the daughter of Martin Luther King Jr. and resulted in mobile notifications from news outlets such as The New York Times. That acknowledgement of NASCAR’s move potentially could earn it more fans than it loses — if that matters.

“The way he and I have always thought growing up is everyone is equal,” Blaney said. “We always treat everyone equal no matter where you come from, what color you are. You treat people with respect, don’t judge people.

“I feel like he’s taken a larger stand, just encouraging the cause right now, just wanting equality and understanding. I feel like he always has been one a little bit. But now in these times, I think it’s great he’s embracing it and leading the charge. I’m really proud and will stand behind him 100 percent.”

Whether Wallace wins a race or not, he will have a strong legacy in NASCAR after the last four days.

“When you look at the comments he made on CNN the other day and then NASCAR completely answered it — kudos to NASCAR, kudos to Bubba for bringing it up and using his platform for

something good,” said 2018 Cup champion Joey Logano. “That’s the most important thing.

“We can win races. I say this all the time: Winning a championship is nice, but what is it? It’s an empty trophy, it’s an empty cup. That’s what it is. If you do nothing with

it, it’s really pointless at the end of the day, so kudos to him for really stepping up and being a leader and not just a race-car driver.”

On The Air

Saturday

NASCAR Xfinity 250 (Homestead), 3:30 p.m., FOX

NASCAR Gander RV Trucks Baptist Health 200 (Homestead), 7:30 p.m., FS1

Sunday

NASCAR Xfinity 250 (Homestead), noon, FS1

NASCAR Cup Dixie Vodka 400 (Homestead), 3:30 pm., FOX

Stat of Note

Martin Truex Jr. has won his last two Martinsville starts, after going winless in his first 27. It was his fourth short-track win in the last six short-track races after he winless in his first 80 short-track races.

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They Said It

“I have confidence in James [Small] all year that we can continue what we’ve done. I think this answers a great question for him more than anything to himself. I know he’s had a lot of people saying things about can he fill Cole [Pearn’s] shoes, is our team going to be able to continue what we’ve been able to do in the past with him. I feel 100 percent that we will.”

— Martin Truex Jr. after his first win with crew chief James Small